UT-Martin Review / Kentucky Preview

The Gators took care of business with a 45-0 plucking of the SkyHawks in the home opener.  This was a mismatch from the start, as the defense completely shut down the UTM attack, while the offense was nothing more than workmanlike.  Plenty of young players were able to see extended action, as the coaching staff was able to clear the bench starting in the second half.  The offense is still struggling to establish the running game – the right side of the O-line is still a weakness right now, and unless this improves starting this week with the SEC schedule, it will cost the team in the big games coming up.  The offense ended the night with over 200 yards rushing, but that was deceiving, as many of those yards came after UTM was worn down and backups were playing.  Once again the pass blocking was solid, allowing Franks to complete 25 of 27 passes, including 2 long TDs to Jefferson and Cleveland.  The game plan was pretty vanilla with no disguises put on film for Kentucky to study.  The defense controlled the LOS all night, only allowing a few long runs and one pass well after the game was settled and backups littered the field.

Unfortunately, the night didn’t go as well as planned, as both CJ Henderson and Kedarious Toney were injured in the 2nd quarter and never returned.  It appears Toney will be out with a shoulder injury until at least the Auburn game, while CJH may miss this week and possibly the next with an ankle sprain.  It’s the one thing I always hope doesn’t happen against these overmatched opponents – injuries to key players.

It’s on the Bluegrass State for the SEC opener against the Wildcats.  Speaking of injuries, Kentucky received some bad news with the loss of starting QB Terry Wilson to a knee injury for the rest of 2019, so backup transfer Sawyer Smith gets thrown into the fire against a formidable Gator defense and pass rush.  Head Coach Mark Stoops is saying that the offense really won’t change that much, but we’ll see.  I expect the Wildcats to try and shorten the game by grinding out first downs with the running game featuring Kavosley Smoke and Asim Rose to keep the score close and try to steal a win late.  If Florida can win first down, it will be a long night for Smith and their passing game, as the Gators lead the nation in sacks with 15 and have a host of pass rushers ready to deliver some pain.  Smith is not the athlete nor runner that Wilson was, and that will hurt when plays start to break down.  Brad Stewart returns from suspension this week and will be a welcome upgrade at safety.  DC Todd Grantham should have some exotic packages dialed up for the new starting QB to apply constant pressure and confuse him with new looks.  It will be interesting to see how aggressive he is calling the defense – does he come after the new QB early and often, or force him to make reads?  The defense was been susceptible to screens and draws, and It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Kentucky use some of these.

On offense, I hope that Mullen isn’t too stubborn to go to the passing game early, especially if the running game continues to struggle.  The Wildcats have a NG and DT each over 350 lbs., so perhaps running some misdirection and counters to get those big guys moving the wrong way could help.  The deep passing game has really come along, and it may be decisive again this week.  A few big plays to make some scoring drives easier could go a long way towards a win.  I expect some throws to Perine to slow the pass rush, while Jacob Copeland gets the chance to fill in for Toney and show why he was one of the most highly-recruited athletes in the 2018 class.

The Gators should have no problem being highly motivated for this game, as they’ve had to listen for an entire year how they blew the 31-game winning streak in the series last year, at the Swamp, and how they were physically manhandled at the LOS. 

This is a huge game for the Gators – take advantage of Kentucky’s injury problems and win the SEC opener before coming home for Tennessee.  It’s time to finally start playing closer to expectations – especially on offense – and start building to a peak before the big games in October.

Prediction:

Florida     27

Kentucky 17

UT-Martin Preview

The home schedule begins this Saturday with the Tennessee-Martin SkyHawks coming to the Swamp for a big paycheck and an even bigger beatdown.  This will be not much more than a glorified scrimmage for the Gators, and a good opportunity to shake off some rust after the bye week while (hopefully) showing a lot of things were cleaned up after the sloppy win against Miami.

The offense has plenty of room for improvement.  The right side of the O-line was exposed against Miami – Bleich and Delance need to show improvement right away or may get replaced.  The WRs need to get separation and make more plays downfield.  The TEs have to improve their run-blocking.  Franks can improve some fundamentals and quicken his reads.  The entire offense needs to generate a solid running game – working on improving timing and execution.

The Gator defense should have little trouble controlling anything UT-Martin tries.  This should a good opportunity to get a lot of young guys some snaps in the second half, while some key players like DT Tedarrell Slaton return from suspension and can get some live game reps in.  The safety play has to improve – the performance against Miami was poor both in coverage and angles taken for tackling – the same issues as last season.

As always in a game like this, the mantra is NO INJURIES.  Things get a lot more interesting next week with the SEC opener at Kentucky.  I hope the staff is able to get the players to focus a little better than they might normally do with such an important upcoming game.

Prediction:

Florida 51

UTM     6

Miami Review

On a night in which the Gators tried to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, Florida defeated Miami 24-20 despite a flurry of turnovers and penalties that made the score much closer than the two teams really are.  That was one, um……interesting game, but still satisfying in the end with a win.

I knew the first game would feature some sloppy play, but damn!  Let’s just say the Gator staff will have plenty to discuss with the team during the bye week with a LOT of things to “correct”.  I knew that the only way this game would be close was if Florida lost the turnover battle, and (unfortunately) that’s exactly what happened.  Leading 7-3 in the second quarter, Felipe Franks and Lamical Perine somehow muffed an exchange on a zone read, allowing Miami to escape a potential 11 point deficit and changing the entire complexion of the game.  A dropped pitch from Franks to Malik Davis should never have happened, which led to the ‘Canes taking the lead at halftime.  Franks then had 2 interceptions in the 4th quarter that allowed Miami first to retake the lead and then to stay close.  The first was a pass to an open Freddie Swain that was too high and tipped.  The second was, well……I’ll be nice and just say egregious.  I liked Coach Mullen calling a pass play on first down with 4:30 left, instead of just running the ball to try and milk the clock.  But no one knows why Franks made the throw that he did, giving the ‘Canes a short field to try and win the game.  Like I said……LOTS to “correct”.

The Gator defense was lights out for the most part.  The offense did them no favors by running only 54 plays and leaving the defense on the field for 36 minutes.  But those guys never flinched and brought the heat all night.  Yes, there was the one long rushing TD allowed because of horrific tackling.  But the defense rose up time and again after the turnovers gave Miami a short field many times.  DEs Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard and LBs Ventrell Miller and James Houston created havoc in the ‘Cane backfield all game, getting 10 sacks and numerous QB pressures along with many negative running plays.  My guess is that close to 100 yards of Miami’s 301 total came only after multiple pass interference and personal foul calls gave them new sets of downs.  DeeJay Dallas ended with 95 rushing yards, but 74 came on only two plays out of the wildcat formation, again driven by terrible tackling.  Miami has two quality TEs, and while Brevin Jordan had 88 yards and a touchdown (on a tipped pass), the defense did a much better job overall in covering the TEs than last season.  The safety play is still suspect – Jaewon Taylor and Donovan Stiner are not SEC-level players, and Brad Stewart was sorely missed, serving (another) suspension.

Florida’s special teams were dynamite, as expected.  I expected them to dominate, while most pregame analysis glossed over them.  Tommy Townsend’s punts were excellent, and his fake in the first quarter gained a first down and allowed the Gators to take the lead on the very next play, a 66-yard WR screen to Kadarious Toney.  All but one of Evan McPherson’s kickoffs found the end zone, and he converted his only FG attempt.  Finally, the buy-in by starters like WRs Van Jefferson and Tyrie Cleveland on punt coverage is a prime example of Mullen’s emphasis on special teams.  Both guys were right in Jeff Thomas’ face when he fumbled a punt at the Miami 11-yard line in the 3rd quarter.  Jefferson recovered, and the Gators took the lead 17-13 on a Franks to Perine pass.

After the immediate hysteria dies down about the wild 4th quarter, turnovers, penalties, and poor tackling, many will realize that these were the only things that kept the score close, as Florida was at least 14-17 points better than Miami.  By playing in this special opening game, Florida gets the rare gift of a 3rd bye week – allowing them plenty of time to recuperate after a hard-fought win and to clean up many things.  I could not care less what the national media and perception is from this game – it was a huge win against a bitter in-state rival, and will look even better as scUM cruises through a weak ACC schedule.

I’ll be back next week with my preview of the home opener against Tennessee-Martin.  Go Gators! 

Miami Preview


The 2019 season begins with a huge national showcase game against Miami in Orlando, to kick off the 150th season of college football.  This is a massive opportunity for the Gators to make a statement with the entire nation watching.  The fact that it’s against a bitter in-state rival makes this game even more critical to get off on a positive first step and also for in-state recruiting.
Florida’s offense has perhaps it’s best group of skill position players in a decade ready to roll out and show the nation how explosive they can be.  RBs Lamical Perine will be the leader of the ground game, but Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis are capable guys with little to no falloff in production.  QB Felipe Franks has a stable of veteran WRs outside that possess speed, size, and run after the catch ability in Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes, and Tyrie Cleveland.  This group will demand the attention of the Miami secondary, many times in man coverage.  If the WRs make an early splash, that will open up the middle of the field for slot receivers Freddie Swain and Josh Hammond and TEs Kyle Pitts and Kemore Gamble.
Ultimately, all of that ability by the skill guys will be tempered (or worse) if the rebuilt O-line struggles.  Nick Buchanan in the only returning starter, at center.  Bret Heggie is a stud a left guard, but has been dogged by injuries his first 2 seasons and has to stay healthy.  Redshirt freshman Chris Bleich gets the start at right guard and has practiced well in camp.  The tackle situation is the biggest question mark, as Stone Forsythe and Jean Delance/Richard Gouriage step in for Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor, respectively.  If Coach Hevesy can somehow get this unit to at least perform as an average SEC line, that will be more than enough to win this game but also give the Gators a chance for bigger things ahead.
If the O-line struggles to protect Franks, I expect more 2-back and 2-TE sets to help out.  While this will lessen the chances for big plays, these formations would allow Franks to get the ball out quickly to the RBs and TEs when not trying to run the ball.  Putting these guys in motion would also simplify the reads for Franks by making the defense declare their coverage and looks pre-snap.  Finally, jet sweeps to Kadarious Toney and Jacob Copeland can help stretch the filed horizontally and not require the O-Line to hold it’s blocks as long.
Miami returns most of it’s front seven on defense, but lost a key player in D-lineman Gerald Willis to the NFL.  Shaq Quarterman leads a very good LB corps filled with senior starters.  Al Blades Jr. is solid at CB as are Amari Carter and Gurvan Hall at safety.  This group will challenge the inexperienced Gator O-line, and Franks has to stay patient and not force things.
I expect the Gator defense to face a conservative, run-heavy game plan by the ‘Canes. If new OC Dan Enos is stupid enough to try and have an inexperienced Jarren Williams try to beat the Gators by passing the ball against a great secondary and pass rush, with an extremely inexperienced O-line at the tackle positions, he’ll just be setting up the offense for failure.  The Gator DEs – Jabari Zuniga, Louisville transfer Jonathan Greenard, and Jeremiah Moon – have to be licking their jaws, ready to eat up a true freshman and redshirt freshman at OT.  I expect Miami will try to shorten the game with steady running and the occasional play-action deep shot to a WR (KJ Osborn or Jeff Thomas – if he’s not suspended) or seam route to one of their talented TEs (Brevin Jordan or Will Mallory).  This will be an immediate test to see if Coach Grantham has improved the pass coverage by the LBs and how well Trey Dean is ready to fill in at the Star position.  Miami’s TEs will test the middle of the field, and the Gator LBs and safeties have to be ready and at least slow them down.
Florida should have a decided advantage on special teams.  PK Evan McPherson and punter Tommy Townsend are one of the best tandems in college football, and Coach Mullen has plenty of experienced and dangerous threats in the return game.  If Thomas is suspended for this game, that a big hit the the Hurricanes, as he is a dangerous kick returner.
If the Gators can protect the ball on offense and win first down on defense, this should be a solid win, despite the rivalry aspect of the game.  I expect Miami to come out early with a lot of fire, but after a few series and the teams settle down, Florida has enough experience and playmakers on both offense and defense to pull away in the second half. 
Florida 26scUM  13

2019 Season Preview

Florida comes off of the momentum of a strong finish to 2018 with wins over Florida $t. and Michigan, and will now be more the hunted than the hunter. Dan Mullen and his staff have the opportunity to build on the positive changes they established last season and continue to rebuild a solid foundation for the program. Every season is important, but some in retrospect are seen as more important than others – was 2018 a mirage, or do the Gators prove they are truly headed in the right direction?

There are some significant holes to fill with the losses of OT Jawaan Taylor, DE Jachai Polite, and slot defender Chauncey Gardner-Johnson to the NFL. There are some very good players ready to step in, but quality depth can only be found within certain position groups and not across the board. Another solid season would go a long ways toward closing the talent (and depth) gap that widened during the Won’t Misschump and Swamp Donkey eras by continuing the recent recruiting momentum.

Offense

Florida finally will roll out a group of skill position players that approaches what is expected by Gator Nation. However……unless Coach Hevesy can develop an O-Line that is at least serviceable, then there could be some problems against a challenging schedule.

Any success from the offense will depend almost solely on the offensive line. Nick Buchanan is the only returning starter, at center. There is no real experience behind him, so Brett Heggie will likely be the backup. Heggie is the best returning lineman and will start at left guard, but has battled injuries for 2 seasons and must stay healthy. Redshirt freshman Chris Bleich gets first crack at right guard – he has looked good in spring and fall camp, but (in a recurring theme) has little experience. The biggest concern is at the tackle positions, trying to replace LT Martez Ivey and RT Taylor. Stone Forsythe earned the start at LT in fall camp, while Texas transfer Jean Delance was slated to be the RT until incurring a leg injury in fall camp. Forsythe may have to move to RT or a backup gets forced into a starting role. There is so little experience and so much youth that usually this is exposed and magnified in the SEC. Mullen will have to call plays that help hide some deficiencies and try and allow a solid group of skill position players to shine. Richard Gouraige and TJ Moore are the only backups with any meaningful experience, with Noah Banks having to quit football for medical reasons. This is a scary depth chart, and injuries to any starters could derail any chance for a big season.

The running back corps is solid. Lamical Perine returns for his senior season as the leader. He has always been a tough runner, but has improved his speed during his career and is also a reliable receiver and pass-blocker. Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis will provide quality depth and have shown big-play potential. Freshman Nay’Quan Wright has promise, but will get only limited carries with so much quality ahead of him.

The strongest unit by far is at wide receiver. Talent, speed, depth, and size abound. Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes, and Tyrie Cleveland are all reliable targets with big-play potential. What would really help the offense is the development and some actual production out of the slot receivers – Josh Hammond, Rick Wells, and Freddie Swain need to put pressure on the middle of the field to help Franks keep the chains moving and the improve the overall efficiency of the offense. Finally, will this be the season that Kadarious Toney is utilized as he should be? He needs 8-10 touches a game to stress the defense on the perimeter and to showcase his ability in the open field.

I’m more bullish on the TE group than most. Despite the lack of experience, this unit has guys with SEC size and talent that can actually help in both the run and pass game. Kyle Pitts, Lucas Krull, and Kemore Gamble all have the potential to contribute – the question is which one or two takes over?

At quarterback, it’s Felipe Franks’ offense now. He finished 2018 strong and has distanced himself from Emory Jones and Kyle Trask. If he simply focuses on continued improvement in the film room and runs with conviction when the opportunities are there, he will be fine. As long as the O-Line doesn’t have him running for his life, there are plenty of playmakers surrounding him in order to have success on offense.

Defense

The Gator defense should be very good this season, with razor-thin depth in the secondary the only major concern. As long as the offense isn’t forcing these guys to play too many snaps, there are real playmakers in the group to assist in perhaps a run at the SEC East title.

The D-line actually could be as good or better than in 2018 – especially the edge guys. The loss of Jachai Polite might be felt initially, but the overall depth at DE, led by returning starter Jabari Zuniga, Louisville transfer Jonathan Greenard, and Jeremiah Moon are as good as anyone in the SEC. Young guys like Zach Carter, Andrew Chatfield, and Mohamoud Diabate will get their chance in the rotation to make a splash. The most important group will be the interior DL. Adam Shuler is the leader at DT and should make some noise this year. It’s time for Kyree Campbell, Elijah Conliffe, and TJ Slaton to put up or shut up. The physical talent is there – but will they mentally push through fatigue and the occasional injury, unlike last season?

The linebacker corps should be the best group since 2016. Senior David Reese leads the way at ILB. James Houston and Ventrell Miller have shown flashes, but need to play well consistently. Amari Burney is the young gun that started to ball out the last 2 games and could be the breakout star this season. Ty’Ron Hopper is a true freshman that could get into the rotation if he practices well and contributes on special teams.

The secondary has perhaps the best pair of CBs in the SEC in CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson, who returns from an ACL injury last September. These guys can shut down anyone, and should allow the front seven to make plays. Trey Dean was forced into Wilson’s spot last year and did well as a true freshman – he will step into the Star role in the place of NFL-bound Gardner-Johnson. Kaiir Elam is the one true freshman that could see significant snaps this year in a backup role. The safety position is the one that worries most observers. Shawn Davis and Brad Stewart are SEC-level players, but Davis has to improve in coverage, while Stewart’s biggest enemy is himself being a knucklehead off the field. Jaewon Taylor and Donovan Stiner are solid backups, but both have to improve in coverage and with the angles they take for open-field tackling.

Special Teams

I am really excited to see how this unit will contribute this fall, as the kicking specialists might be the best pair in college football. In addition, Dan Mullen has the roster depth now to place some real dangerous guys in the return game.

PK Evan McPherson could have been the most important recruit of 2018. He never looked like a true freshmen, making 90% of his FGs including clutch kicks to help win the road game at Mississippi St., while regularly placing his kickoffs into the end zone. Tommy Townsend succeeded his brother Johnny at punter and didn’t miss a beat, with great hang time for the coverage units and even sticking his nose in to make some tackles.

It’s finally time to put some real playmakers in for returns. There obviously is risk in using any starter, but guys like Toney and Davis could steal a close game if given the opportunity. Swain and Cleveland got the majority of touches on punts and kickoffs respectively in 2018, so it will be interesting to see if Mullen sticks with the the familiar or shakes things up.

Schedule and Outlook

Florida’s schedule begins with a showcase on August 24th against Miami in a neutral site game in Orlando. It will be the only game of the day, kicking off the 150th season of college football. This is a huge opportunity to get off to a good start both on the field and in recruiting – but comes with a lot of added pressure. The 4-game SEC stretch from Auburn through Georgia will ultimately determine how big of a season this will be for the Gators.

vs. scUM (Orlando) – Win
Huge game for the Gator program and Mullen. No need to take a step back after a strong finish to 2018. Beat down an in-state rival for recruiting momentum. Could be close into the 3rd quarter, but Florida should have too much for the ‘Canes.

Bye Week 1

UT Martin – Win
A glorified scrimmage to start the home schedule. Offers the chance to knock some rust off before starting the SEC slate. As always – no injures, please.

@Kentucky – Win
The Mildcats are talking proud after a 10-win 2018, but are gonna take a step back after taking advantage of some weaker-than-usual teams. They will learn quickly that having a target on your back is a lot different. Very important game to get off to a good start in conference – Mullen will have the Gators ready even though this one is on the road.

Tennessee – Win
Always an important SEC East game for the Gators. The Vols still have a major rebuild in progress. Florida simply has too many talent advantages across the board to lose this one at the Swamp.

Towson – Win
Another glorified scrimmage. Offers the chance to play some young guys and rest/heal the starters before a brutal SEC stretch. As always – no injures, please.

Auburn (Homecoming) – Loss
Toughest game to predict before the season starts. The Gators historically have struggled with Auburn. The Tigers have the best D-Line in the SEC, and will rely on a strong running game. The Gators can’t afford to play from behind. Auburn’s inexperience at QB could allow Florida to win a very close game, but right now this looks like a bad matchup at the line of scrimmage.

@LSU – Loss
LSU returns most of a very strong defense, and likely will have an improved offense. This series has turned ugly recently, and this will be another typically tough matchup. I’m going with the Tigers to prevail based on the Gators coming off of a difficult game the previous week.

@S. Carolina – Win
After 2 tough games, this one could be a lot closer than it should be. The Lamecocks have a lot of holes to fill and have a very tough schedule. But any road game in the SEC can prove difficult, and I could see this one coming down to the last possession.

Bye Week 2

vs. Georgia (Jacksonville) – Loss
The Puppies have taken advantage of very shady recruiting practices and a weak SEC East to prop themselves up nationally the past 2 seasons. Sadly, Georgia has a distinct talent advantage right now, and enough experience returning to win a close game. The Gators need to reverse the trend in this series soon.

Vanderbilt – Win
The Gators will be coming off a very tough 4-game conference stretch, and likely will have one of their historic letdowns against the Commodores. Florida wins by double-digits, but it may not be pretty.

@Missouri – Win
Florida has been embarrassed by this mediocre program mostly due to it’s own struggles since the Tigers joined the league in 2012. Missouri lost a lot of talent on offense and will be rebuilding. If this game were anywhere but on the road in what could be bad weather conditions, I would pick the Gators to win comfortably. This one could be close into the 4th quarter.

Bye Week 3

Florida $t. – Win
The Gators ended a miserable 5 game losing streak to the Criminoles last year, and the pendulum is swinging Florida’s way. It’s a rivalry game, so (almost) anything is possible, but F$U has major issues within it’s program and it’s talent level is way down. Mullen will put a stamp on a state championship with a solid win.

Overall Record 9-3
SEC Record 5-3

2019 arrives with a much different feeling surrounding the Florida program than the uncertainty of Dan Mullen’s first season. There is confidence that comes from the strong finish to 2018, but there are also the expectations that come with that. Predicting even 9 wins with an inexperienced O-Line against a tough SEC slate could be wildly optimistic. New players need to step into leadership roles – Franks, Perine, and Jefferson on offense and Henderson, Reese, and Zuniga on defense. The starting 22 are among the best in the SEC, but quality depth is sorely lacking at OL, LB, and in the secondary in case of injuries. The Gators will need some luck on the health front to maximize it’s win potential. Another good season will keep the recruiting momentum going and allow Florida to further distance itself from F$U and scUM. With so little room for error, it will be another interesting season in Gainesville.

It’s that time again……Heeeeeeeeeeeere come the Gators!

Peach Bowl vs. Michigan Review

Florida closed out it’s 2018 season with a resounding 41-15 beatdown of Michigan in Atlanta. What a turnaround from 2017 – props to Dan Mullen, his coaching staff, and the players for starting the rebuild/rehabilitation of the Gator brand with a 10-win season and providing much-needed momentum going into the February recruiting period and off-season.

After a slow start, the offense found it’s footing by establishing a solid running game that included some chunk plays by Franks on read-options that forced the Wolverine front seven to stay honest. Perine and Scarlett wore down the Michigan defenders in the second half, with Perine’s long TD run on a 3rd-and-20 draw play effectively ending the competitive phase of the game. Other key plays were Toney’s 30-yard burst on 4th-and 1 to set up a score, and the tunnel-screen throw to Perine for the TD that put Florida in the lead for good (a play that hadn’t been run all season).

The defense bent some in the first half, but once they were able to control the LOS and slow Michigan’s running game, that allowed the pass rushers and secondary to take over. The DT rotation held it’s own against a strong Wolverine O-line, while Polite and Zuniga disrupted the pocket for Shea Patterson on quite a few pass plays. CGJ closed out his Gator career with 2 critical interceptions – the first ending a Michigan scoring chance at the goal line followed by a long return that set up a Gator score, and then capping off the scoring with a pick six that started the celebration early.

After suffering 2 embarrassing losses to Michigan under the Swamp Donkey, this result showed the rest of the country that Florida is beginning it’s return to elite status with a head coach that actually works as hard as he demands from his staff and players along with becoming tougher both physically and mentally.

Dan Mullen and the staff can now use this exclamation point to further their case on the recruiting trail, while the retuning players can look back and see the fruits of their hard work and buy-in to the new regime, including Nick Savage’s S&C program. While F$U and scUM struggle, Florida can step into the vacuum and re-establish itself as the premier program in the state while starting to put space between itself and it’s in-state rivals. If the Gators can close on a handful of recruits at positions of need and continue to grind in off-season workouts and then spring practice, they will be in good shape in advance of another challenging season ahead.

The light at the end of the tunnel is no longer an oncoming train of bad coaching and lazy, misguided recruiting……it’s one of better days ahead for Gator football and for the Gator Nation.